Marx against Morality by Allen Wood

The complex philosophical legacy of Karl Marx is debated to this day. His copious output has influenced contemporary understandings of history, geography and economics. But the massive problems which have affected Marxism in practice have sometimes prevented people from appreciating the value of his work.

One difficulty has arisen because of the hostility which Marx possessed with regard to conventional morality. This distaste flowed from three sources. Firstly, Marx was aware of the contradiction between what bourgeois moralists said and what they did. Secondly, Marx was conscious of the some of the hypocrisies associated with religion. Thirdly, Marx contended that ordinary morality was linked to the capitalist mode of production. In other words, many people lived within an ideology that misled them about the changing meanings of rights, justice and freedom.

Allen Wood has defended Marx with regard to his controversial perspective on morals. This does not mean that some later Marxists have not betrayed their movements by unjustifiable behaviour. Clearly, Marx might well have been a victim of Stalin if they had lived during the same historical period. For Wood, the ideological issue was central. He wrote:

“When they are motivated by ideologies, people do not understand themselves as representatives of a class movement; but they are just the same.”

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Shrinking chocolates and the Phillips Curve

If the Bank of England moves the interest rate today, commentators will focus on the official level of inflation. However, some inflation is hidden. Manufacturers can keep the price of a product the same whilst reducing its quality or its quantity. Consumers of chocolates may be outraged by this type of corporate behaviour.

The Phillips Curve suggests that there is a trade-off between inflation and unemployment. In the modern British labour market, we have concealed unemployment. This is where the official measures of unemployment do not capture the true extent of underemployment in the economy. People capable of work if they received support might be on sickness-related benefit, while self-employed workers may be unable to access benefits when demand for their labour is limited. If contemporary inflation statistics and unemployment statistics lack rigour then the Bank of England could be tempted to take action which is inappropriate for the long-term health of the economy.

It is hard to discern whether hidden inflation or concealed unemployment is the more significant problem. The answer may well vary on a regional basis. When the Government does not have a credible regional economic strategy, the Bank of England can only hope for the best. The Northern Powerhouse has not given much concrete support to manufacturing so far and it must be hoped that any interest rate rise does not impact adversely on the performance of the peripheral regions. Fortunately, any adjustment to interest rates will be small so the impact on unemployment should be limited.

 

 

Inflation: the basket case

The Office for National Statistics regularly adjusts the composition of the basket of goods which is used to assess inflation in the UK. This can be a controversial process because consumers buy such different items. While artisan gin may be really popular in some circles, other social groups could be more concerned with the price of iced buns.

Class and gender may impact on what we purchase. Our perception of inflation is thereby influenced by the position we occupy in society. When inflation is above the two per cent target, our emotions about it might be structured by more than our income.

This matters when interest rates are the subject of elite discussion. The Bank of England may cite inflation if it nudges up the interest rate this week. But people know that the central bank is also concerned with its credibility. Any decision of the Monetary Policy Committee will be evaluated by citizens with different spending patterns. This suggests that a broader economic debate is needed. Minor interest rate adjustment may be deemed to be tinkering if enough people think that the unbalanced UK economy requires the implementation of a robust democratic strategy.

And The Weak Suffer What They Must? by Yanis Varoufakis

This narrative is of great interest because Yanis Varoufakis attempted to confront the European elite with macroeconomic logic. However, there is little Marxism to be found in the work of this self-described “erratic Marxist.” Where one might expect to see examples of dialectical materialism one discovers historical anecdotes.

The book provides plenty of evidence to support the thesis that Greece has been treated unfairly. Nonetheless, it might not show that the cruel “fiscal waterboarding” was risking the stability of European capitalism. Following the international banking crisis, capitalism in several countries has proved to be highly unstable. Further, it is hard to portray capitalism as sustainable in terms of its growing impact on the natural world. Arguably, the current economic system is inherently chaotic and big profits are generated despite the lack of order.

The text does contain insights into the worlds of central banking and politics which may be entertaining for the general reader. The populist Varoufakis is prone to making sweeping statements which can make somebody suspend their critical judgement:

“The more the crucial political decisions are turned over to unelected second-rate technocrats, the fewer gifted men and women enter politics. Would the young Mitterand, I wonder, have entered politics in a Europe where questions of interest rates, taxation and social welfare were deferred to faceless bureaucrats?”

Can a Tory dash to the centre save them?

“An Economic Theory of Democracy” was written by Anthony Downs back in 1957. He postulated that politicians who neglect the ideological centre would struggle. Sir John Major has tried to rescue Theresa May by offering her advice along the lines of the ‘median voter theorem.’ Hence the idea has been floated that welfare reform should be paused whilst some of the terrible flaws in the core policy of Universal Credit are addressed.

However, tinkering with the implementation of Universal Credit might not help to relaunch the Tory project. The difficulties associated with the Brexit negotiations could still cause serious damage to the coalition. Optimists and realists are not necessarily divided in terms of left and right. But their squabbles could undermine May significantly, especially as personal ambitions are tangled up in the disputes.

A swift move to the centre could buy time for the Prime Minister. Nonetheless it might alienate those who hanker for distinctive Tory policies. Her agenda already contained policies pitched towards voters in the middle of the ideological spectrum. There is no panacea for the ills of the Conservative Party. As the next election gets nearer, greater flexibility and imagination will be required if the impressive Labour surge is to be checked.

 

Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman

This illuminating book serves as a partial explanation for the inadequacy of the British media. Power is partly concentrated in the hands of a few oligarchs. These affluent press barons have great influence without accountability. Nor are they compelled to pay sufficient tax. Further, their employees can act corruptly in a system where elite interests are privileged.

The text focuses on the widespread practice of phone hacking. But it also pays a great deal of attention to the denials of the companies responsible. This deceit was initially given credibility by an establishment which was far too keen to look after its own.

The lengthy narrative suffers from a lack of clarity in terms of its structure. As a result, certain details lose their impact. Nevertheless, the story remains an uncomfortable one for newspaper proprietors. Moreover, it exposes the core problem of there being too few checks and balances on the actions of the ‘free press’. Elite journalist Andrew Neil said:

“And I would argue that Rupert Murdoch with his take-no-prisoners attitude to journalism- the end will justify the means, do whatever it takes- created the kind of newsroom climate in which hacking and other things were done with impunity on an industrial scale.”

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists adapted by Tom McLennan

“Working women and men, rise again

And take inspiration from Bob Tressell’s pen.”

This play is based on a classic novel. The socialist canon is certainly richer for the poignant contribution of Robert Tressell. However, converting the lengthy narrative into a script is a difficult task. An essential feature of poverty is monotony and boredom is not necessarily what a typical theatre audience wants.

The truncation of the story changes the text into a simple melodrama. Nevertheless, Costal Productions worked hard to manufacture something worth watching. The colourful spectacle was received well in Merseyside yesterday.

Ultimately, the play raises as many questions as answers. Tony Benn wrote about the meaning of the book, but the brevity of his analysis was really disappointing. As a result, an interpretation of the work is dependent on context and personal perspective. While there is some resonance between the fictional past and the political present, there remains a gap. The complexity of the history of the British working class cannot be ignored and the prospects for democratic change are still uncertain.